Chiara de Blasio and her mom, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray at the launch of a new text message-based mental health resource for teens. Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.
Chiara de Blasio is known for being the daughter of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but she’s also won acclaim for her empowering attitude and her willingness to speak up about her history with mental illness. In December of 2013, Chiara released a YouTube video where she opened up about her struggles with clinical depression and substance abuse. She told viewers that she sought therapy for both and that being able to get the help she needed allowed her to fully engage in her father’s campaign and get back on track with school.
When speaking to Teen Vogue shortly after the release of the video, she said:
“It’s part of my temperament to be very straightforward, very blunt, very honest. My parents always stressed communication as a really important part of any relationship. When I was younger, I didn’t want to tell them everything—I have my teenage secrets—but they taught me that honesty is the best policy in any situation.”
Chiara’s honesty is commendable, as is her sincere advocacy for mental health. Last month, Chiara became a spokesperson for a new NYC program aimed at treating teens with depression. The program, sponsored by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, will allow teenagers to seek guidance and advice via text message. For young Black women who are experiencing mental illness but remain silent, whether due to fear of family disapproval or fear of public judgment, Chiara’s vulnerability is inspirational, courageous, and even defiant. Her honesty is a rejection of the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype, which dehumanizes Black women in order to emphasize the belief that Black women are impervious to physical and emotional hardships, that this inherent inner strength is akin to super powers. Chiara is making it clear the ways she’s vulnerable and how being honest about when she needs help actually makes her stronger.
Mental illness is still stigmatized and can be specifically vilified within the Black community. In an article for The Root, Dr. Jeff Gardere, a practicing therapist who is Black, noted that one of the reasons why the Black community often harbors a distrust of professional mental health experts is that, “[There are] not enough black mental-health professionals who look like their patients.” When speaking to Ebony, Dr. Janet Taylor, Director of the Guest Support Team for The Jeremy Kyle Show, stated that, “There are some health care providers who assume that… strife in black people or having a difficult time are what’s to be expected.” There is obvious proof of this multi-layered disconnect; the American Psychological Association found that young adult African Americans, especially those with higher levels of education, are less likely to seek mental health services than their White counterparts.
Representation matters, whether it’s in the context of film, literature, TV, or the health field. Not only can it dismantle pervasive stereotypes, but it can disarm culturally accepted taboos. Like Chiara, I have battled with depression and anxiety throughout my adolescence. Unlike Chiara, my parents weren’t as supportive. This is not to say that my parents ignored my unhappiness or didn’t care. My sadness was an uncontrollable and seemingly permanent thundercloud that followed me like a feral street dog. On the other hand, my parents were frightened of such a possible diagnosis and of dealing with the negative connotations attached to mental illness. My father has always been decidedly old-school about doctors and therapists; he’s wary of them and of their intentions. He adheres to the mantra that “boys don’t cry.” To pay a stranger to listen to a laundry list of burdens and to share secrets that are possibly shameful seems like an unnecessary luxury of the rich and privileged—people lacking the grit forged from fending off blood-hungry adversaries. My mother, who is Filipino, also balked at the idea of going to see a therapist. She believed (and still believes, to an extent), that depression is a matter of character weakness, the mark of someone comfortable as a victim. During my sophomore year of college, I finally decided to silence the voices of my parents and my own inner doubts. I made an appointment at the campus health center. After I confessed my mental health history (or rather, the silencing of it), the therapist said, “You have been sad for a long time now.” I was grateful that someone finally understood, that someone acknowledged the power of my depression. Getting treatment for my mental health issues was one of the kindest things I’ve ever done for myself.
In a personal essay for xoJane, Chiara wrote,
“Some people believe that it is impossible for people who come from backgrounds like mine to suffer from the diseases of depression and addiction. They may believe that we don’t appreciate what we have, make bad decisions, and/or have some sort of moral deficiency. I am here to tell you that that is not true – 10 percent external conditions [factor into one’s happiness]. Mental illness does not discriminate. However, that does not mean that there isn’t hope for each and every one of us.”
Chiara’s role in this new health campaign not only decries the sense of shame attached to mental illness, but it challenges the racial proponent attached to the public narrative of mental illness.
Related Reading: In New Film Rocks in My Pockets, Depression is a Surreal Ghost.
Vanessa Willoughby (@book_nerd212) is a writer and Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review.